Taylor Swift Strikes Out Looking on The Tortured Poets Department

Swift is the most famous musician—and, arguably, person—on Earth, but on her latest album she can’t help but infantilize the very people who buy into her music and drive her successes upwards in the first place.

Music Reviews Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift Strikes Out Looking on The Tortured Poets Department

Sylvia Plath did not stick her head in an oven for this! When Taylor Swift took the Grammy’s stage last month to claim her award for Best Pop Vocal Album for Midnights, she saw that spotlight as an opportunity to announce her 11th studio album: The Tortured Poets Department. The follow-up cut to audience members—Swift’s music industry peers, mind you—told us all that we would ever need to know, and the collective disinterest across the crowd echoed through our TVs. Folks from all walks of life took to social media to express a multitude of reactions. Swifties clamored to their beloved monarch’s forthcoming era, while others lambasted the terminally cringe title and artwork and ridiculed Swift for making a night recognizing musical achievements across an entire industry about herself—knowing perfectly well that it would send her fanbase into a surge that would, no doubt, overpower the excitement around the ceremony itself. Quite a few people questioned whether or not that moment suggested that a critical—definitely not commercial—tide would turn against the world’s most-famous pop star. And, perhaps it has—but, to most, it will look like nothing more than a single ripple in Swift’s ocean of successes.

Swift remained relatively hush-hush about The Tortured Poets Department up until its release, leaving her fans, admirers and haters alike with nothing but an album title and tracklist to ponder about. And it’s a bad title. If you have never been in Swift’s corner, her taking the route of labeling her next “era” as “tortured” was likely catnip for your disinterest. If you are a fan—not necessarily a Swiftie, but even just a casual lover of her best and brightest work—you might be beside yourself about the first Swift album title longer than one word in 14 years. In terms of popularity—certainly not always in terms of quality—no musician has been bigger this century than Swift, which makes it impossible to really buy into the “torture” of it all. This is not to say that Swift being the most famous person in the world makes her immune to having multi-dimensional feelings of heartbreak, mental illness or what-have-you. But, she has made the choice—as a 34-year-old adult—to take those complex, universal familiars and monetize them into a wardrobe she can wear for whatever portion of her Eras Tour setlist she opts to dedicate to the material. Torture is fashion to Taylor Swift, and she wears her milieu dully.

This album will surely get comparisons to Rupi Kaur’s poetry, either for its simplicity, empty language, commodification or all of the above. And, sure, there are parallels there, especially in how The Tortured Poets Department, too, is going to set the art of poetry back another decade—as Swift’s naive call-to-arms of her own milky-white sorrow rings in like some quintessential “I am going to take pictures of a typewriter on my desk and have a Pinterest mood-board of Courier New font” iPhone fodder. 2013 called and it wants it capricious, suburban girl-who-is-taking-a-gap-year wig back! Soaking our book reports in coffee or having our moms burn the edges with a kitchen lighter cannot come back into fashion; the cyclical notions of culture cannot make the space for such retreads.

There is nothing poetic about a billionaire—who, mind you, threatens legal action against a Twitter account for tracking her destructive private jet paths—telling stadiums of thousands of people every night that she sees and adores them. Tavi Gevinson says it well in her Fan Fiction zine: “When 80,000 people are also crying, you become less special, too.” If Swift can return to one of her dozen beach houses across the world, kick up her feet and say “I’m a poet of struggle,” then who is to say that millions—maybe billions—of people with access to a notes app and a social media account won’t dream that dream, too? Maybe that looks like a net-positive, but it’s inherently damning and destructive to take an art form that has long stood on the shoulders of resistance, of love and of opposition to power, systematic injustice and climate warfare and boil it down to the new defining era of your own 10-digit revenue empire. “My culture is not your costume,” yada, etc.

The Tortured Poets Department does begin with a shred of hope that, just maybe, Swift knows what she’s talking about—as she sneaks in a cheeky “all of this to say,” textbook transitional phrasing for poets, on opening track “Fortnight.” But “Fortnight” unmasks itself quickly as a heady vat of pop nothingness, though it isn’t all Swift’s fault. “I was a functioning alcoholic, ‘til nobody noticed my new aesthetic,” she muses, attempting to bridge the gap between a behind-the-scenes life and on-stage performance—only for it to occur while propped up against the most dog-water, uninspired synth arrangement you could possibly imagine. Between producer Jack Antonoff’s atrocious backing instrumental and the Y2K-era, teen dramedy echo chamber of a vocal harmony provided by out-of-place guest performer Post Malone, “Fortnight” chokes on the vomit of its own opaqueness. “I took the miracle move-on drug, the effects were temporary,” Swift muses, and it sounds like satire. This is your songwriter of the century? Open the schools.

The Tortured Poets Department title-track features some of Swift’s worst lyricism to-date, including the irredeemable, relentlessly cringe “You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate, we declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist / I scratch your head, you fall asleep like a tattooed golden retriever” lines glazed atop some synthesizers and drums that just ring in as hollow, unfascinating costuming. Aside from the Puth nod, which I can only discern as a joke (given the fact that he is one of the 150-most streamed artists in the world and is one of the blandest pop practitioners alive—I don’t care if he can figure out the pitch of any sound you throw at him), I think Antonoff should stick to guitar-playing. Get that man away from a keyboard, I’m begging you.

Synths can be, if you use them correctly, one of the most emotional and provocative instruments in any musician’s tool-box. There’s a reason why keyboards defined the 1980s; they rebelled against the very oppressive nature existing outside of the cultural company they kept. There’s resistance in electronic music that, while they brandish an aesthetic that, to a layman’s ears, seems like technicolor hues for any infectious pop track, it’s a genre that aches to tell its own story. That is simply not the case here, and that electronica hangs Swift out to dry when she drags us through the lukewarm “I laughed in your face and said, ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith’ / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’re modern idiots” lines, only to hit us with a softly sung F-bomb that sounds like a billionaire’s rendition of that one Miranda Cosgrove podcast clip. It’s sweet, though, that Swift is giving a much-needed platform to unknown creatives like Thomas and Smith, along with the underground synth-pop band the Blue Nile, whose song “The Downtown Lights” get a charming shoutout on “Guilty as Sin?”

The Tortured Poets Department isn’t all rubbish, though—that much I can admit. “But Daddy I Love Him” and “loml” both stick out immediately, the former of which sounds like a descendent of the Taylor Swift of 10 years ago, at least sonically. There’s a country bent to the electronica of “But Daddy I Love Him,” and it really lends its hand to the knack for awe-striking, stand-still melodies that Swift has long shown she has a finesse for. And she sings the “they slammed the door on my whole world, the one thing I wanted” pre-chorus line like she believes in it herself, which doesn’t always happen on this record. “I’ll tell you somethin’ ‘bout my good name, it’s mine alone to disgrace / I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing” is one of the best couplets that Swift has written since evermore. “loml” is the piano ballad you should expect from Swift, too, as it strips away all of Antonoff’s worst pop sonics and leaves nothing but her voice and a lone piano and one of my favorite phrasings she’s ever done: “And all at once, the ink bleeds,” she sings. “A con-man sells a fool a get-love-quick scheme, I’ve felt a hole like this never before and ever since.”

I used to rag pretty heavily on Reputation—mostly because I thought (and still do, mostly) that it sounded like Swift had given up on making interesting, progressive pop music; that, in the wake of her (arguably) best album, 1989, it seemed like she’d lost the plot on where to go next. But as she’s put out Midnights and The Tortured Poets Department back-to-back, I find myself clamoring for the Reputation-era more than ever—at least seven years ago, Swift wrote songs like she had something to prove and even more to lose. That was the always-obvious charm of Reputation, even despite the downsides—that she took a big swing from the echelons of her own musical immortality, that the comforts of winning every award and selling out the biggest venues in the world were no longer pillowing her aspirations. Even though that swing didn’t land, she still made it in the first place—and Swift is at her best either when she is clawing upwards (Reputation) or faced with nowhere to go but into the studio and noodle with the bare-bones of her own sensibilities (folklore). You get something like The Tortured Poets Department when the artist making it no longer feels challenged, where she strikes out looking.

The mid-ness of The Tortured Poets Department will not be a net-loss for Swift. She will sell out arenas and get her streams until she elects to quit this business (a phrase decidedly not in her vocabulary, surely). She will sell more merch bundles than vinyl plants have the capacity to make, and rows of variant LP copies will haunt the record aisles of Target stores just as long as Midnights has—if not longer. Perhaps, in five or six years’ time, we will speak of this record just as we now do of Reputation. But right now, it is obvious that Swift no longer feels challenged to be good. The Tortured Poets Department is the mark of an artist now interested in seeing how much their empire can atone for the sins of mediocrity. Can Swift win another Album of the Year Grammy simply because she released a record during the eligibility period? The Tortured Poets Department reeks of “because I can,” not “because I should.”

On “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” Swift tries stepping into the shoes of the country renegades who came before her—the Tammy Wynettes and Loretta Lynns of the world. But her self-aggrandizing inflation of importance, glinting through via a seismically-bland bridge, is backed by a minimal set dressing of guitar, drum machine and keys. “Good boy, that’s right, come close,” she sings. “I’ll show you Heaven if you’ll be an angel—all mine. Trust me, I can handle me a dangerous man. No, really, I can.” On “Florida!!!,” Swift calls upon Florence + the Machine to help her sing the worst chorus of 2024: “Florida is one hell of a drug / Florida, can I use you up?” Even Welch, who is a fantastic pop singer-songwriter in her own right, delivers a grossly watery verse: “The hurricane with my name, when it came I got drunk and I dared it to wash me away.” Not even the typos on the Spotify promotional materials for this album could have foretold such offenses. I won’t even get into the sonics, because Antonoff just rewrites the same soulless patterns every time.

What separates The Tortured Poets Department from something like Reputation is that, on the latter, Swift made it known what was at stake and who she was making that album for—herself, in the aftermath of her greatest long-standing criticisms (“Look What You Made Me Do” triumphs exactly because of this). On The Tortured Poets Department, there is a striking level of moral nothingness. The stakes are practically non-existent, and the album sounds like it was made by someone who believes that they had no other choice but to finish it, as if Swift fundamentally believes that her creative measures are firmly embedded in the massive monopoly her name and brand currently hold on popular music. That’s how you get meandering pop songs about hookups, wine moms, Stevie Nicks comparisons, Jehovah’s Witness suit mentions, hollowed-out, tone-deaf nods to white-collar crime in lieu of empowerment and, topically, Barbie dolls. (Don’t even get me started on the Anthology lyrics, which feature these absolute barn-burners: “Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto” and “My friends used to play a game where / We would pick a decade / We wished we could live in instead of this / I’d say the 1830s, but without all the racists / And getting married off for the highest bid.”) This album and its hackneyed grasps at relevance exist as “Did I just hear that?” personified, but in the most derogatory sense of the notion.

“My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” features another low-point in Swift’s lyrical oeuvre, as she sings “I felt more when we played pretend than with all the Kens, ‘cause he took me out of my box”—perhaps a measure of her capitalizing on the Barbenheimer mania that none of us could escape, not even the musician who spent part of 2023 flying across the world from one country to another. But you, us, the listener—we want to believe that Swift makes these records because she has the artistic will, drive and interest to continue giving us parts of her story in such ways that they exist as an archival of her life. But the problem is that, on The Tortured Poets Department, Swift is packaging her life into a form that is easily consumable for the 17 or 18 years olds who pore over her music. Just because her Eras Tour film is on Disney+ doesn’t mean she has to strip her songwriting (which we know can be, and has been, phenomenal) down for the sake of it being digestible by a wide spectrum of ages.

And, sure, maybe that makes the work accessible. But on The Tortured Poets Department, Swift makes Zoomer jargon her bag—titling a song in such a way that her younger audience might confuse it for one of the most popular video games in the world and conjuring flickers of “down bad” and “I can fix him”—and it feels like she’s cosplaying because the Fountain of Youth was out of order. Now that Swift is in her 30s, it sounds like she is infantilizing her own audience more than ever before—that singing to them at a level that could force them to reckon with something more akin with adulthood would be some kind of kink in the coil or her consumeristic threshold, that writing lyrics that sound like they were penned by a 30-year-old would, somehow, deter the interests of the billions of people who adore her.

But that is simply not the case. These are the same people who spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars just to see Taylor Swift perform her timeless, generational music from nosebleed seats (and sometimes, from the parking lots enveloping the stadiums!). The issue is that Swift and her fans have grown together numerically but, substance-wise, there has been no aging up. And thus, that begets the perplexing mediocrity of The Tortured Poets Department. The reasons why folklore and evermore were (and are) such a well-rounded pair are firmly planted in Swift’s now anomalous urges to break away from the clutches of her own rudimentary box.

If making one, continuous coming-of-age album is what Swift has been doing for 15 years, folklore and evermore were hiccups in the timeline—existing as the most fully-formed renderings of Swift’s own insecurities and concerns. They mirrored our platitudes towards an uncertain future with sweet, stirring remarks about isolation and heartbreak and the unavoidable, hard-worn truth about getting older. On those records, her larger-than-life living seemed, for once, to truly feel as close to the ground as ours. Now, though, Taylor Swift is at the top of the mountain. Far better artists have made far worse records than The Tortured Poets Department, but you can’t read between the lines of this project. There is nothing to decipher from a place of quality. Sure, Swift’s fan base will pore over these lyrics for the rest of their lives—insisting they know, for certain, which song is about who. But you cannot place a bad album on the shoulders of lore and expect it to be rectified.

We are now left at a crossroads. Women can’t critique Swift because they’ll run the risk of being labeled a “gender traitor” for doing so. Men can’t critique her because they’ll be touted as “sexist.” And, sure, Swift is probably too easy a punching bag in this case—and most of the time, I would argue she is undeserving of being a victim of such barbs. But, you cannot write about someone being a “tattooed golden retriever” and get away with it and still retain your title as the best songwriter of your generation. You just cannot. Sisyphus should be glad he never got the boulder to the top of the mountain—because Taylor Swift is showing us that such immortality and success ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. And, when you’re standing on the peak alone, who else is there left to hit?

In a recent interview with The Standard, Courtney Love said that Swift is “not interesting as an artist,” and I think The Tortured Poets Department proves as much. She has nothing to fight for, no doubters left to drown. So where does she turn? Well, to boredoms of celebrity thinly veiled as sorrow everyone and their mother can latch onto—because we’ve all had to “ditch the clowns, get the crown” at some point in our lives, right? The billionaire is having an identity crisis, but there are no social media apps for her to buy up. So she sings like Lana Del Rey and writes meta-self-referential songs about looking like Stevie Nicks.

What’s hollow about The Tortured Poets Department is that the real torture is just how unlivable these songs really are. No one can resonate with “So I leap from the gallows and I levitate down your street, crash the party like a record, scratch as I scream ‘Who’s afraid of little old me?’ You should be.” And normally, that wouldn’t be an end-all-be-all for a pop record—but when your brand is built on copious levels of “I’m just like you!” as the demigod saying it to their fans does so from a multi-million-dollar production set, it’s hard to not feel nauseated by the overlording, overbearing sense of heavy-handed detritus we’re tasked with sifting through on The Tortured Poets Department. Love’s words to Lana, her advice to “take seven years off,” should be applied to Swift. Now, that doesn’t mean that, to make a good album, you must sit on material for years and labor extensively through the sketching, shaping and recording in order for it to be transcendentally landmark. But it’s obvious now that not even Taylor Swift wants to be the head of an empire—that she, too, can’t outrun the damning fate of being plum out of ideas by hopping in her jet and skirting off to God knows where. See you at the Grammys.

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